Festive Snapshots: Eastern Health Employees Share Holiday Stories


Last year, Eastern Health started a new holiday tradition by sharing traditions from some of our many diverse employees, with the stories Tis the Season, For Many Reasons: Happy Holiday Memories and Treasured Traditions from Eastern Health Employees and Holidays Past, Present And Future: Finding Common Ground When You ‘Come From Away’. We invite you to read on below for more stories from our employees about their festive celebrations!

Continuing the Tradition

As this is my first holiday season as an Eastern Health employee, I was eager to continue the tradition to find out more about how our diverse group of colleagues celebrate and observe holidays and religious occasions, while sharing some of my own!

Since joining the Eastern Health team, I quickly learned that there are many diverse backgrounds that make up our 13,000 employees as well as the patients, residents, and clients that receive our health care services. I also heard about Eastern Health’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and how they have been hard at work over the past year to strengthen an inclusive environment for our employees, patients, residents, and clients.

“The Diversity and Inclusion Committee is committed to creating a welcoming, safe and inclusive workplace for all employees, physicians, volunteers, clients and their families. In the new year, we will continue to direct our effort in building awareness, removing barriers and providing education on diversity and inclusion challenges at Eastern Health,” shares Josee Dumas, human resources strategist and chair of Eastern Health’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

Holiday Traditions from Winterland and Beyond

Growing up in Winterland, Newfoundland, my holiday traditions may sound familiar to others with hometowns in the province. I think back to bundling up to go in the woods with my parents and sister to find an often less-than-perfect Christmas tree (although one year we really did ‘hit-the-jackpot’); decorating and wrapping presents to give to others; going to a packed church on Christmas Eve to sing upbeat hymns where you could just feel the excitement in the air; sitting around a dining room table – full of loved ones and turkey dinner – on Christmas Day; visiting and get-togethers with family and friends; and driving around the community to look at the Christmas lights – just to name a few.

St. Michael and All Angels' Anglican Church in Creston South, NL

St. Michael and All Angels’ Anglican Church in Creston South, NL

In more recent years, I have spent the holiday season with my immediate family in St. John’s (where I now call home) or in Montreal (where my sister calls home). No matter the geographical location, our Christmas traditions (and even some decorations) remain the same. My sister and I still have our dated hand-knit stockings, while my niece and nephews have their own hand-knit stockings from Newfoundland. In amidst the store-bought Christmas tree decorations, you’ll also find some home-made decorations that once had a place on the trees of family members, representing a little piece of family whether or not they are present. It’s probably clear from sharing my holiday story that family and togetherness is a big part of Christmas for me.

Hand-made stockings and ornaments from Newfoundland on display at my sister's house in Montreal, QC

Hand-made stockings and ornaments from Newfoundland on display at my sister’s house in Montreal, QC

Through speaking with Eastern Health employees of different backgrounds and faiths, it was easy to see that spending time with loved ones was a common theme throughout. Amidst the differences, there are also common themes throughout – lights, food, celebrations, and more – which you will discover!

Thank you very much to Ernestine, Dr. Elshahat, Dr. Pegrum, and Dr. Noble for taking part and sharing your holiday traditions!

Ernestine Worley
Registered Nurse, General Surgery, St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital

Ernestine Worley is originally from Freetown, Sierra Leone, located in West Africa, where Christmas preparations and celebrations also begin in December. “During December we are usually busy shopping for the family, decorating our homes with new curtains, paper and tinsel garlands, and Christmas cards from family and friends,” says Ernestine. During this time, the evenings would bring about visitors and entertainment, as young people would go door-to-door singing Christmas carols and spreading Christmas cheer.

Ernestine Worley, Registered Nurse, St. Clare_s Mercy Hospital

Ernestine Worley, Registered Nurse, St. Clare_s Mercy Hospital

In Ernestine’s experience, Christmas was celebrated by everyone regardless of their religious background. “On Christmas Day we would open our gifts and attend the church service in the morning. The children were usually dressed in colourful cotton prints and Christmas hats made with paper of different colours. After the service we would have a festive lunch with close family members.”

While these Christmas traditions are similar to those found here, food typically prepared during the holidays is different, beginning with starters of cake, rice bread, and ginger beer. “Rice bread is made using rice flour and bananas. Ginger beer is made by crushing the ginger root, extracting the juices with water and adding cloves, lime and sugar to taste,” Ernestine explains. According to Ernestine, the main course – Jollof Rice – is a popular festive dish that consists of rice, chicken, and vegetables such as cabbage and carrot.

Since moving to Newfoundland, Ernestine has developed a love for a popular local festive meal – Jiggs Dinner. In fact, the Eastern Health employee turkey dinner has become a new tradition that Ernestine looks forward to every year. “The annual Christmas Dinner provided by Eastern Health is always appreciated as it puts me in the spirit of Christmas.”

Dr. Bassem Elshahat
Medical Imaging Physicist and Radiation Safety Officer

Dr. Bassem Elshahat, originally from Egypt, is a proud Canadian Muslim who lived in Victoria, B.C. prior to moving to Newfoundland and Labrador two and a half years ago. For Dr. Elshahat, the holidays are about sharing the celebration with family. “This time of the year, we share happiness with everyone because of the birth of Jesus; coincidentally Christmas is on December 25 and Jesus’ (“Isa”) name was mentioned 25 times in Muslim holy Quran. My wife and I normally speak with our kids about Jesus and his mother during this time of the year,” Dr. Elshahat shares.

The weather that this time of year brings is a highlight of the season for Dr. Elshahat: “Because I came from a hot weather country, I love the snow here.” Although he did add that the snow and wind can make it challenging when trying to decorate the exterior of the house.

Dr. Bassem Elshahat with his children in St. John's

Dr. Bassem Elshahat with his children in St. John’s

Dr. Elshahat went on to share two main Muslim holidays based on the Islamic “moon” calendar. The first is a three-day holiday called Eid Al-Fitr which comes after fasting during the holy month of Ramadan (which is month nine of the Islamic calendar). In 2018, Eid Al-Fitr began on Friday, June 15. “The night before we prepare cookies with the kids and decorate our house inside and outside. Kids wear new clothes on the holiday morning and we go to the prayer and meet friends. We call our parents and relatives in Egypt and then spend the whole day outside with the kids,” explains Dr. Elshahat. In terms of food, Dr. Elshahat and his family enjoy “cookies and smoked fish after a full month of fasting, to avoid upsetting the stomach.”

Two of Dr. Bassem Elshahat_s children at a holiday celebration in St. John's.

Two of Dr. Bassem Elshahat_s children at a holiday celebration in St. John's.

Two of Dr. Bassem Elshahat’s children at a holiday celebration in St. John’s.

The second holiday is a four-day holiday called Eid Al-Adha, known as the Feast of Sacrifice, that begins on the 10th day of month twelve on the Islamic calendar. In 2018, Eid Al-Adha began on August 22. “If available, sheep or goat, is sacrificed in memory of the story of Abraham’s son Ishmael; the sacrificed animal is cut into thirds: one third is given to the less fortunate, one third to friends and relatives and the last third eaten by us. We eat the meat with rice, soup and bread,” Dr. Elshahat explains.

In addition to traditional meals, the holidays also involve visiting with family and friends and exchanging gifts. Dr. Elshahat also enjoys receiving messages with happy holiday greetings “Eid Mubarak” from his Eastern Health colleagues. When asked about his favourite holiday memory, Dr. Elshahat responded, “I met my soulmate, my wife.”

Dr. Sarah Pegrum
Registered Psychologist, Adult Community Mental Health-West Team, Mount Pearl Square

Dr. Sarah Pegrum was raised in Australia where she and her family celebrated Christmas, marking the occasion with many of the same traditions celebrated in Canada, such as turkey dinner and singing Christmas carols. However, the difference in climate led to a different spin on such traditions and also to others, such as swimming on Christmas Day.

Dr. Sarah Pegrum participating in aerial performance during the holidays last year.

Dr. Sarah Pegrum participating in aerial performance during the holidays last year.

“In Australia we listen to and sing the same carols, including those that allude to the cold and snow. We also have similar Christmas decorations. It wouldn’t be unusual to see a snowman decoration on someone’s front lawn in 35-degree heat. I remember my first white Christmas in Canada, and thinking ‘oh this makes so much more sense,’” shares Dr. Pegrum.

The warmer Christmas days in Australia allowed for one of Dr. Pegrum’s favourite traditions growing up – an outdoor event that takes place on a hill or amphitheater, called Carols by Candlelight. “People usually arrive before the sunset, and set up on the hill with a picnic. As the sun sets local choirs or musicians perform Christmas carols, and the crowd would light candles and sing along with them – making the hill light up and look like stars in the sky, and the air full of music.”

Another popular Christmas tradition that can be impacted by the warmer weather in Australia is cooking turkey dinner. Dr. Pegrum shared a story about one hot Christmas Day, when the temperature was about 40 degrees, and her family decided to cook the turkey outside on the weber (or the barbeque, as it’s commonly referred to in Canada) to keep the house cool. “To facilitate the cooking of the turkey a few extra coals were added to the weber. Later in the day the family were anticipating the great unveiling of a beautiful glistening juicy turkey, and we were all watching as dad lifted the lid of the weber. What we saw was far different from what we had in mind; the turkey was in flames and dad was then left with the task of putting it out, as us kids roared with laughter and while mum watched with rage and devastation.”

It goes without saying that Dr. Pegrum and her family ended up eating a very dry, less-than-perfect turkey that year. Although it wasn’t the best tasting holiday dinner, it resulted in a fond memory that has been talked and laughed about for years after and, for Dr. Pegrum, a lesson about perfectionism during the holidays: “Some of the best memories I have of Christmas were when we let go of striving for the picture perfect Christmas, whether by choice or when plans go up in flames (sometimes literally).”

On the note of reflection, as many of us tend to do this time of year, Dr. Pegrum who has lived in Newfoundland and Labrador for 10 years now, shares that she feels lucky to have so many great holiday memories. “Over the years I have lost a number of members of my family, and those that remain I am separated from by a lot of distance. At this time of year, I feel that, but I am lucky that I am surrounded by great people. What I have noticed as I reflect on my Christmas memories is that those I cherish the most are not about gifts or materialism, they are about sharing time and experiences with loved ones.”

Dr. Sheldon Noble
Psychiatrist, Dr. G.B. Cross Memorial Hospital, Clarenville

Dr. Sheldon Noble is pictured below with his family; the photo was taken last year when they visited Newfoundland and Labrador for the holidays. This year they don’t have to travel far to be with their family here, as they moved to Clarenville in September. “We are so thankful to be living in Newfoundland. We are close to our family who is just one and half hour drive away from us. We can be there with them for Christmas and the holiday season. Family and friends make life a better place to live in,” says Dr. Noble.

Dr. Sheldon Noble with his wife Shilpika and children, Tanmay and Devshi.

Dr. Sheldon Noble with his wife Shilpika and children, Tanmay and Devshi.

Dr. Noble and his family celebrate both Diwali and Christmas during the holiday season. Diwali is a festival of lights where he and his family light candles – “a symbol of light over darkness and good over evil,” Dr. Noble explains.

Both Christmas and Diwali involve lights, gathering with family and friends for fun, fellowship, and food (including sweet treats). “The sweet offered to the God is ‘prasad’ on Diwali. We have a lot of sweet treats on Christmas too,” says Dr. Noble.

Prior to moving back to his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Dr. Noble lived in New York and the Carribbean (where his children have spent the majority of their lives). Because of this, his Christmas experiences are varied, from mummering while growing up in Newfoundland to sliding with his family, to taking in the Christmas magic and sights and skating in New York City, to experiencing a much warmer climate and swimming in the Caribbean. “Over the last few years having lived in the Caribbean and New York we have had many different events to celebrate. New York City Christmas is amazing with the Rockettes, Rockefeller Tree, Central Park, and window shopping. The Caribbean is different because there is never any snow for Santa’s sleigh,” says Dr. Noble.

Having experienced the holidays in different parts of the world, Dr. Noble shares a fitting message for this time of the year (and beyond): “No matter where you are and who you are with; celebrate life and make that moment memorable for a lifetime.”

Reflecting on Traditions

Like others featured in this story, I also find myself reflecting on fond holiday memories this time of year. I feel grateful to have so many wonderful memories and even more grateful that I am able to make new memories each year. I am also appreciative to have had this opportunity to learn more about the holiday traditions of members of the Eastern Health team. Thank you again to Ernestine, Dr. Elshahat, Dr. Pegrum, and Dr. Noble for sharing your stories and taking part in this Eastern Health holiday tradition!

Happy Holidays! ■

This story was written by Allison Barter, a communications specialist with Eastern Health.

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